Oral Histories

Interview of Mai Nguyen

Musician, teacher of Vietnamese music, and co-founder of the Lac Hong group, which is dedicated to supporting Vietnamese cultural heritage by providing instruction and performance opportunities for young and aspiring performers of traditional Vietnamese music.
Traditional Asian Arts in Southern California
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Musician, teacher of Vietnamese music, and co-founder of the Lac Hong group, which is dedicated to supporting Vietnamese cultural heritage by providing instruction and performance opportunities for young and aspiring performers of traditional Vietnamese music.
Cline, Alex
Nguyen, Mai
Persons Present:
Nguyen and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Westminster, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. Cline has spent a considerable amount of his career as a jazz drummer/musician in Los Angeles.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Nguyen was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
6 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Traditional Asian Arts in Southern California series focuses on both immigrants and second- or third-generation Asian Americans who have continued East Asian or Southeast Asian musical, dance, and performance traditions in Southern California. Some preserved their art form by adhering to the traditional forms of their disciplines, while others incorporated elements from Western arts and culture.
Early family home in the Mekong Delta--Supportive relationship with her father--Interest in the arts and problems with math as a girl--Conflict in the family’s area causes the family to relocate to Saigon--The family’s new home and neighborhood in Saigon--Family is robbed by bandits on their way to Saigon--Nguyen's curiosity about her French neighbors in Saigon--The daily schedule and family meals at the family’s new home--Special dishes Nguyen’s mother taught her to prepare--Her father’s storytelling--The family’s Buddhist religious background and her father’s lack of interest in Buddhism--The beginnings of her interest in music--Begins studying traditional Vietnamese music under Nguyen Huu Ba at the new national Conservatory of Music in Saigon--Chooses to study the dan tranh, despite the predominant view at the time that it was purely the domain of the lower class--How she managed to procure a dan tranh--Nguyen is the first student of traditional music at the conservatory--Instruction and wise guidance from her teacher, Nguyen Huu Ba--Reasons she didn’t learn to sing during her music training--Curriculum and academic demands at the conservatory, which included Western classical music--Learns to apply Western notation to a tradition that lacked such a notation system--Gender discrimination in the learning of and performance on traditional musical instruments at the time--Disapproval of Nguyen’s pursuit of traditional music by her daytime school peers--Graduates from the conservatory with degrees in music and in education, which leads to her immediate employment as a teacher at the conservatory and at a girls' high school--Continues to study traditional music with various teachers after her graduation--Learning traditional Vietnamese music deepens Nguyen’s appreciation and respect for Vietnam’s history and culture--Reasons present-day students choose to learn the traditional music versus reasons students in Nguyen’s time chose to learn it--Appreciation for traditional music in South Vietnam begins to increase during the sixties, but employment opportunities are scarce and it remains low-paying--At the conservatory class distinctions between students of traditional music and students of Western classical music gradually begin to dissolve.
Nguyen’s parents’ names--Reasons traditional music in Vietnam came to be viewed as lower-class--The economic divide between music students at the conservatory when she was there--The true meanings of many of Vietnam’s songs composed during the 100 years of French occupation--How Nguyen’s teachers learned the traditional music of Vietnam--Her students then and now--The student-teacher relationship as it expresses itself in Vietnam--The number of students studying traditional music in Vietnam during the sixties--Changes in life conditions during the Diem regime--Low earning power of a teacher of traditional music--Impact of the escalation of the war on the conservatory’s male students--Buddhist protests against the Diem regime in Saigon--Relative safety of South Vietnam from communists during the Diem regime--Nguyen’s impressions of Americans in her country--Feelings among the citizens of Saigon as the war escalated in the late sixties--The fall of Saigon in 1975--How she learned Western classical literature at the conservatory versus how she learned the history and content of traditional music--Works as a medical representative for her uncle’s medical manufacturing company in order to make a living--Marries, has a son, and is divorced while still in Saigon--Her son’s career as a doctor--Changes in conditions at the conservatory after the communists took over in 1975--Factors that led her to decide to flee Vietnam with her then ten-year-old son--The dangers of the decision to leave and of the trip itself--The boat in which she escaped lands on one of the small islands in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines--The suddenness of her departure from Vietnam--The status of her family who were left behind.
The fate of Nguyen’s brothers, who were in the South Vietnamese military, after Saigon fell--The island on which she and her boat mates found themselves after fleeing Vietnam--How her son handled the dangerous voyage--The trauma of her escape experience later leads to her forgetting all the music she learned--Kindness the Marines from the Philippines showed the Vietnamese refugees--A typhoon hits the island the day after the boat lands there--She and the other refugees are relocated to a relocation camp on Palawan--With her valuable English language skills, Nguyen assists the refugees with paperwork--A Catholic charity sponsors her immigration to Houston, Texas--She talks to her dan tranh before leaving Vietnam--Her dan tranh is shipped to Paris, France, ultimately reaching her again in Houston--Using a Chinese instrument, Nguyen begins teaching again, gradually remembering the music--Where she feels she received her spiritual strength--How learning to become calm and quiet was part of her musical training and ultimately her own teaching--Her love of Christmas but lack of inclination toward Catholicism--Meets Madame Nhu while teaching at the girls’ school in Saigon--Commemorating the fall of Saigon--Nguyen’s new life in Houston, where she lived in a house with other Vietnamese refugees and worked various jobs, teaching music on the weekends--How homesick refugees found solace in Nguyen’s musical gifts--The mission of those who represent the traditional culture of their homeland in other parts of the world--U.S. appreciation for musicians from other cultures--Her feelings about her new life in the U.S. --Her son’s academic excellence--Her students in the U.S. --Nguyen’s generation of musicians as a bridge between old and newer methods of notating and reading music--More on the non-musical elements that inform the composition of traditional Vietnamese songs--Growth of the Vietnamese community in Houston before she left there--Reason she moved from Houston to Southern California--She remarries after moving to Houston and gives birth to her daughter--The small size of the Vietnamese community in Orange County, California, when she moved there in 1984.
Nguyen’s children and grandchildren--She gradually regains her memory of all the music she learned in Vietnam--Relocation to Orange County, California--Her work with the Orange County Social Services Agency teaching Vietnamese immigrants about parenting, legal issues, American culture, etc. --Suspected of selling illegal drugs back in Vietnam, she is questioned by the police and released--More on her reasons for deciding to escape Vietnam in a small boat--Her first music students upon arriving in Orange County--She meets Chau Nguyen, a teacher of many traditional Vietnamese instruments, and with him founds Lac Hong, the Vietnamese traditional arts organization--Lac Hong acquires a grant to hire an outstanding dance teacher and choreographer, Luu Hong--Lac Hong’s current facilities and programs aimed at training students of all ages--Lac Hong’s funding sources--Groups similar to Lac Hong elsewhere in the U.S. and in France--Opportunities for the group to perform outside California--Nguyen’s young students--Luu Hong’s special talent--The challenge of teaching Vietnamese American youth who are immersed in contemporary American culture--Teaching strategies that encourage Nguyen’s students to become teachers themselves--The rarity of non-Vietnamese students at Lac Hong--Reasons Vietnamese people from all over Southern California come to Little Saigon on weekends--The importance of retaining the Vietnamese language once removed from Vietnam--Vietnamese values beyond the music and dance which students learn at Lac Hong--Venues outside the Vietnamese community in which Lac Hong has performed--Nguyen’s first return trip to Vietnam in 1994--The rebuilt National Conservatory of Music in the former Saigon--The status of her family and friends who remained in Vietnam--Nguyen’s feelings about being far away from her family--Family and friends in her life in Southern California--The fate of her second husband--2009 becomes a year of many losses--How she began practicing meditation and eating vegetarian--How meditation helped her heal--The importance of preserving traditional Vietnamese music and culture--Nguyen sees and appreciates her students’ pride in being Vietnamese.